#10QuestionswithMaxwell Interview Series: Swee Im Tan, 39 Essex Chambers


#10QuestionswithMaxwell Interview Series: Tan Swee Im, 39 Essex Chambers

In this #10QuestionsWithMaxwell interview, we feature Tan Swee Im, International Arbitrator Member at 39 Essex Chambers, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Swee Im TAN is a Chartered Arbitrator, Barrister-at-Law (Middle Temple) and Advocate & Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya. She is an international arbitrator member at 39 Essex Chambers, based in their Kuala Lumpur office as well as the USA.  Her focus is on the construction, infrastructure and energy sectors with extensive cradle to grave experience, ranging from early procurement strategy to contract drafting, advisory during the project life, through to dispute resolution. She has spent more than 30 years in these sectors in counsel and advisory roles, including having been seconded to the KL International Airport and Malaysia-Singapore Second Crossing projects, been an in-house counsel at a multi-national and founded a boutique legal firm in 1999. She is a fulltime independent neutral who takes appointments as arbitrator, adjudicator, dispute board member and mediator. She is a panel arbitrator of various panels including the AIAC, SIAC, HKIAC and ACICA. She is FCIArb, FMIArb, FAIADR, FCIOB, FMSAdj, Fellow of ACICA, Member of DRBF and holds a Diploma in International Commercial Arbitration. 

In this interview, Swee Im shares how women can achieve the success they want in male-dominated roles and industries, a mentor she looks up to throughout her career, 3 fun facts about her that not many know about, and more.

Read her full interview below:

Q: As an expert in construction arbitration, have you observed a difference between when you first started practicing versus now?   

Very much so – it has become so much more sophisticated but dominated by lawyers. In the bad old days, details of final accounts and variations were often taken by lay arbitrators through tedious cross examination over an inordinate number of hearing days. Thankfully that is no longer the case and even domestic arbitrations will be conducted on limited time oral hearings, often with the use of expert reports on time and money claims. So, I would say that proceedings are more streamlined nowadays and therefore faster. There remain many complaints about the length of time it takes for arbitration, which is understandable, but it is nothing like what it used to be! 

Q: What are some strategies that can help women achieve the success they want in their workplaces, especially in male-dominated roles or industries?  

Don’t worry too much about being a woman and just go out there and do your best in what you want to succeed in. You can find your place and be respected despite it being a male- dominated industry if you are good at what you do, are confident about that and hold your ground. I know from personal experience that bullying and harassment occur but remain steadfast and keep moving ahead. Show them and the world that you can do it, will do it, and are getting the job done. Support is often available from your colleagues, your friends, your family, but you must be willing to reach out to them. It is also important for you to be seen and be heard. All too often I observe excellent female second chairs who know the documents and bundle references at their fingertips and in oral hearings make the first chair, often male, look good. But that only advertises your skill as being support staff, not leads. Remember to come up for air, look at the big picture and don’t lose yourself. It is unrealistic to keep in the shadows and then expect to be seen, heard and selected. 

Q: What are some differences you observed in arbitration in a local versus international setting?  

Time management, presentation of evidence and the amount of preparation outside of the oral hearings is so much more efficient in international arbitrations. The counsel and experts are usually much more tuned in to making things more efficient, reducing time in hearings and being cognizant of time limits set and running a tight ship. In a domestic setting, there seems to be a more relaxed attitude to preparation and time management with an expectation of more latitude being given by the Tribunal. There also seems to be a lack of urgency when counsel and witnesses are located in the same city, and even Tribunal members may be more obliging with adjournments and additional hearing days. However, we must be alive to the fact that many arbitrations, certainly in the construction industry, are domestic because both parties are locally incorporated companies. But in reality they are international in that the local company, and the arbitration proceedings, are controlled by its international parent. In that setting, I do see a more international arbitration mindset. International arbitrations often also bring with them, lessons learnt from other jurisdictions such as less reliance on oral testimony and discovery, whereas in a local setting there may be an attitude of repeating the usual without thinking out of the box. 

Q: Without sacrificing confidentially, could you share with us the most interesting or memorable arbitration case you have been part of?  

It was an arbitration relating to support services and facilities for airlines. Being an avid traveller who loves airplanes and airports, it was a fascinating experience for me to learn about what goes on behind the scenes. We get on a plane, travel to our destination, pick up our bags and off we go. But the many operations behind the scenes to facilitate that are numerous and myriad, involving many people and specialist equipment. Bringing all that to life, learning what things are called and how they work, has stayed with me decades after. I still sit in the plane on every flight, looking at the activity outside with bags and cargo being loaded, catering being loaded, the passenger loading bridge being pulled back and aircraft being pushed back from the gate. I look further afield around me and look at the tugs pulling baggage trolleys, at the ULDs (unit load devices) and peer into the bowels of the baggage handling system. As we push back, I think of whether a tow bar is used, or feel for the lift of the aircraft if towbar-less. As we get bussed within the airport, I think to myself why we are on a commuter bus and not a Cobus. A lifelong interest and all because of an arbitration! 

Q: What steps can younger legal practitioners take to improve their chances of getting appointments? Could you share some advice(s) to aspiring individuals who want to pursue a career in ADR.   

Earn the trust of those who will appoint you – that means being good at what you do, in a manner suitable for the role you will take on as one size does not fit all. I am of the old school of thought that nothing beats hands on experience learning from your own mistakes. But that is a route that many younger ones consider to be overly long and tedious, impatient as they are to get on to the next thing. But as with good construction, a solid foundation is key to your success, and to avoid being a one-hit-wonder. Having an amazing toolbox of skills is also not going to be much good if they are not showcased. Having said that, posting on LinkedIn every conference you attend is not showcasing, that’s just noise. Make your time count – participate in events, speak up, ask questions, share views, don’t just sit there and play on your phone. But don’t be a bore – we all have seen that person who purports to ask a question only to drone on in a monologue using up valuable time. Adapt your skills and knowledge to different circumstances, different environments, different needs; for example speaking on a panel is different to asking a question from the floor and different again to conversation at a networking event, even if it is the same topic. You need to have a genuine interest if you want to pursue and succeed in a career in ADR, as you will otherwise be easily seen through as a fake. Lastly, if people don’t know you, they cannot suggest you. If they have no visibility of your skills, they cannot risk suggesting you. So, use your time and effort wisely and realise that nothing comes easy. 

Q: Do you have a mentor or an influential figure that you look up to throughout your career? Share with us.  

John Bishop. I met John when I was seconded to the (then) Masons team on the KL International Airport and Malaysia-Singapore Second Crossing Projects in 1993. At that time, I was already working alongside senior partners of an international specialist construction law firm and John was an even more senior partner. Despite that I remember him turning up one day and without a specific role on the project, offering to assist with anything that the team needed help with. Well, it happened to be bulk photocopying and organisation of the various contracts that we were drafting – remember that this long before everything was digital. So, there was this senior, senior partner photocopying and on his hands and knees with us sorting out copies of contracts. He also proof- read drafts and offered improvements all in the most down to earth, quiet and humble manner which belied the depth of intellect, knowledge and experience behind those kind eyes of his. As a young lawyer, I was taken aback and since then I have looked to John as a role model and mentor. I still do.  

Q: If you weren’t in your current profession, what profession would you be in?  

I would be in the travel business. I have loved travelling since I was a child and have spent countless hours planning my travels and researching places to stay. But considering that I went through law school convinced that I would not be a lawyer yet having stayed in the law for over 30 years, I am probably too cowardly to make that a reality! 

Q: How does a typical day look like for you? 

What typical day? One of the joys of being a self-employed, independent neutral who is not crazy busy, is that I get to enjoy different phases of life in different locations in different seasons. If in oral hearings then like many, it is the shower, coffee, coffee, grab a bite, grab your laptop and off to the hearing, followed by reading and preparing for the next day. Much the same when writing awards except that I am more cross-eyed looking at the screen for hours! If on a Dispute Board site visit then it is a trip to a different place or country meeting project personnel of various nationalities and learning about an interesting project (I am a brickie at heart – every project is interesting to me!). But, in between all of that, I get to enjoy periods where each day is not typical at all – be it taking road trips in beautiful natural surroundings, bicycle rides by the Rio Grande or walks in the foothills of Sandia Mountain in Albuquerque, sailing in Sydney harbour or going for noodles at my local coffeeshop in KL. 

Q: To get to know you more on a personal level, could you share with us 3 fun facts about you that not many know about?  

(1) I like sailing and used to regularly race in regattas.

(2) I was considered an honorary boy by my colleagues in the construction industry, being the rare female but welcomed into their midst regardless.

(3) I was Chief Entertainment Officer for the CIArb International Conference 2013 in Penang.

Q: Lastly, what are the 3 things that come to your mind when you think of Maxwell Chambers? 

Bento box lunches, good coffee and great stationery! On a more serious note, it would be great resources, very focused delivery of a fit for purpose venue and the constant drive for excellent standards and quality. 


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